Warning: you may find what I’m about to write disturbing.
Imagine a fly infected with parasites bites you. First you get a fever, then headaches, joint pains, and itching. Eventually, when the parasites cross the blood-brain barrier, you lose your mind, you can’t control your muscles, and then you lose your life.
Now, imagine you drink a glass of water. The water contains tiny fleas containing even tinier larvae. The larvae mate and grow in your body. One year later, a painful blister forms on your foot. The head of a worm pokes out. It’s 3-feet-long and takes weeks to remove.
Finally, imagine a mosquito bites you. It’s infected with tiny larvae. They set up camp in one of your lymph nodes, where they mate and nest, causing your leg to eventually swell to 10 times its size.
Sound horrific? Well, I haven’t told you the most disturbing part. I’m not making up these diseases (Human African trypanosomiasis, Dracunculiasis, and Lymphatic filariasis). They are just three of more than a dozen tropical diseases that afflict some of the poorest people in the world. As I write this, more than a billion people suffer from at least one of them.
These diseases go by names that are largely unknown and often difficult to pronounce.
Still, it should be easy to understand why we should all care about them. Spread by worms and insects, they disfigure and disable people living in the remotest areas of the world, keeping children out of school and parents from being able to work. In the worst cases, they kill. And all of them can be prevented—if the world continues to work together to end them.
I am in Geneva, Switzerland this week for a meeting to raise awareness and continue support for the fight against these overlooked diseases. Collectively, they’ve been dubbed “Neglected Tropical Diseases,” but lately they’ve been getting some of the attention they deserve.
Five years ago, Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases, a group of pharmaceutical companies, governments, health organizations, charities, and other partners, came together to treat and prevent these diseases. They set a goal to control or eliminate at least 10 of them by 2020. Today, there’s a lot of progress to celebrate. Fewer people are suffering from them, and many countries are on their way to eliminating them altogether.
Here are some examples of the progress that’s been made.
Dracunculiasis (also known as Guinea worm), the parasitic disease I described above in which a large worm grows inside its victims, is nearing its end. In 1985, the disease afflicted an estimated 3.5 million people in 21 countries in Africa and Asia. Last year, thanks to the work of Uniting to Combat NTDs, The Carter Center, and other partners the number of Guinea worm cases has been reduced by more than 99 percent to 25 cases.
Lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, is the painful, disfiguring disease spread by mosquitoes. Five years ago, 1.5 billion people needed preventive drug treatment to protect them from the disease. Since then, it has been eliminated in six countries and reduced in 18 others.
Human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), commonly known as sleeping sickness, is also in retreat. Cases have declined by more than 90 percent, from 26,000 cases in 2000 to 2,733 in 2015.
What’s driving this progress? It’s been the result of drug donations by pharmaceutical companies and generous commitments by donors and governments. More than one billion people were reached with NTD treatments in 2015 alone—across nearly 150 countries.
New innovations for testing and treatment have also made a big difference. For example, the diagnostic test for sleeping sickness used to require electricity, bulky equipment, and refrigeration, making it difficult to deliver to remotest areas of the world. Now, a simple finger-prick blood test allows health workers to test for the diseases. And new smartphone-based mapping tools could make it easier to map these diseases so health workers can target their treatment efforts in real time down to the household level.
Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. We need continued support from donor governments to finish the job. We need more research on improved drugs and tests to help make it easier to treat people quickly. And we must support the frontline health workers who have the tough job of delivering the drugs in the hardest to reach regions of the world.
If the world keeps up the fight against these diseases, we can improve the lives of millions of the poorest families. They won’t be neglected anymore.
Help us eliminate these debilitating diseases that afflict the world’s poorest by supporting The END Fund. The END Fund is a GiveWell Top Charity.